The Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, said it most succinctly: Democracy is the theory that the people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
In An Enemy of the People, now playing at Baltimore’s CenterStage, the people of an unnamed Norwegian town, led by their fierce, aggressive mayor Peter Stockmann (Kevin Kilner), sure know what they want. Arthur Miller, riffing on an original script of the same name by Henrik Ibsen, allows us to imagine the consequences: disease, lawsuits, economic ruin.
See, the dilemma is this: a group of investors, led by the Mayor, have turned the local hot springs into a Mecca for the sick and the lame – and by so doing, have developed the economic fortunes of their otherwise unremarkable town. The future seems limitless. But the corporation’s physician – Mayor’s own brother, Tom (Dion Graham) has discovered massive amounts of toxic bacteria in the springs. The waters will not bring health to the tourists who seek them out. It will make them sick. Maybe kill them.
Tom receives the confirmation of this alarming development with great joy. He told them that they should have engineered the baths differently, put the intake higher in the river, and so on. They didn’t listen to him, and now they’ll pay. Tom’s sycophantic friends – the newspaper editor Hovstad (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and his underling Billing (Jeffrey Kuhn) – fall over themselves to publish Tom’s findings in their paper (The People’s Daily Messenger!); and the next day their publisher Aslaksen (the golden-voiced Wilbur Edwin Henry, radiating authority even when he is at his most craven) concurs. Hovstad’s brain is full of imperial glory; they will use Tom’s report to oust Peter and his band of conservatives from power.
Peter, of course, has other ideas. Utilizing his own brand of truth and consequences – the repairs Tom’s report recommends will cost two million crowns (about $3.5 million in today’s money), requiring an unpopular tax on the townspeople, and would also shut down the baths for two years – the Mayor dragoons the town, including Tom’s hypocritical newspaper friends, into a campaign to silence the doctor. Peter hijacks a meeting which Tom has called at the home of a sympathetic ship’s captain (John Ahlin) to warn about the ruinous consequences to the Town of allowing Tom to make his report – without revealing exactly what that report is. By an overwhelming majority, the Town votes to silence Tom.
All of this will seem familiar to those who labor to bring unhappy truths to light – about global warming, certainly, but also about the upcoming collapse of Medicare, the challenges to Social Security and the nation’s spiraling debt. As Scripture says, the truth will make you free (John 8:2), but who will make the truth free?
But Miller, like Ibsen before him, puts art before advocacy and insists that we see the whole picture. Tom spent impoverished years ministering to the sick in the Northern part of the country before Peter brought him back and gave him a position with the syndicate which owns the baths, and Tom has never forgiven him for it. Did Tom subject his findings to rigorous scientific testing, as his dyspeptic father-in-law (Ross Bickell) asks? Or is his crusade to publish based on his desire to one-up his brother, and to assuage his own considerable ego? And when he denounces the Town meeting that silenced him, he denounces both the people he served in the North (“they didn’t need a physician,” he said. “They needed a veterinarian”) and the people he lives with today (“the minority is always right,” he insists, citing the crucifixion of Jesus and the torture of Galileo as proof). Can we trust Tom, whose being seems to radiate cold disdain for the people around him, to be the man who saves his community from the consequences of environmental poisoning?
By choosing to emphasize Tom’s flaws, CenterStage’s production enlarges Miller’s play from a narrow focus on our inability to hear bad news to a much broader examination of the fundamentals of democracy itself. It is an examination which is going on, sotto voce, even today as we tussle over the question of the extent to which government “elites” should manage market choice. Democracy’s first premise is that the people possess sufficient wisdom and common sense to secure their safety and prosperity, but as we come to deal with increasingly technical questions, requiring specialized knowledge, does the premise still hold? Miller had the good sense not to try to answer that question, and neither does CenterStage.
CenterStage achieves its exquisitely complex objective largely through superb performances, particularly Henry, Bickell and the two wonderful leads (Jimi Kinstle also puts in a brief, irrelevant, but supremely funny performance as a drunk who wanders into the town meeting). Kilner and Graham succeed by going against type. Kilner’s Peter is no simple villain; he is a fabulously vigorous and effective leader, who sees the whole chessboard and is five moves ahead of anybody else. He, like most political leaders, does what he has to, and what he can. Kilner gives off decisiveness like a fine mist on a hot day, and despite the horrible and desperate decision he makes, his Peter might win an election even if yesterday’s audience was the voting public.
As for Graham, he does an even more difficult thing: his Tom is no simple hero. From the moment he steps on stage, his brashness and arrogance is apparent. When the University confirms his suspicions about the spring water, he is more than vindicated; he does a little victory dance, and when Hovstad and Billing heap their oleaginous praise on him, he takes it as his due. This is, remember, after he has received news which is catastrophic to the town, but great (he thinks) for him, which is all that matters. The portrayal at first dismayed me, but as more and more of the play revealed itself, I realized that this is exactly the Arthur Miller had in mind. Tom, after all, is a man who calls the family domestic servant “what’s-her-name.” Graham, by making the hero of this play into a man who is also a vain fool, answers the actor’s highest calling. He puts himself in the service of the play.
An Enemy of the People
Closes October 21, 2012
700 North Calvert Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
2 hours, five minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – $60
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 410.332.0033
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah makes a bold interpretive choice with this approach, and has selected actors who could deliver the goods. I am not entirely certain that his other decisions add to the production. It is done more modern-dress than Ibsen contemplated, which jars every time the Mayor talks about the fine new carriages that have come to town (or when Tom eagerly shows his visitors his great prize – a slab of roast beef – in the kitchen). It also disturbs a generally flat first scene, in which Tom’s wife (Susan Rome) refers to their guests by their formal names. The set is festooned with black-and white TVs (all functioning well, thanks to video and projection designer Alex Koch), which may be meant as a commentary on the ubiquity of media, but if it supports Miller’s actual text in any way, it has escaped me.
But these are small objections. When Kwei-Armah trusts his material, and his actors to deliver it, he succeeds beautifully. And when he harmonizes with Miller’s treatment (as with Ryan Rumery’s beautiful original music), rather than attempts to add to it, it is sublime.
For some reason, An Enemy of the People is undergoing a popular revival, with a brand new interpretation playing in New York (Richard Seff’s incisive analysis is here) and Theater J is staging another adaptation – Boged: An Enemy of the People – in January.
I do not know what this sudden interest in Ibsen’s play and its derivatives is about, but I do know this is the political season, in which no one is an enemy of the people. Everyone is your friend. So my recommendation is that for the next month or so is to avoid your friends and look up your enemy – that arrogant little twerp who’s saying the things you can’t stand to hear. He’s most likely to lead you to the truth.
An Enemy of the People, by Arthur Miller, adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen, Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Featuring John Ahlin, Ross Bickell, Dion Graham, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Wilbur Edwin Henry, Kevin Kilner, Jimi Kinstle, Jeffrey Kuhn, and Charise Castro Smith. Holden Bretell, Jory Holmes, Zion Jackson and Lucas Pelton alternate in children’s roles). Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez, Costume Design by David Burdick, Lighting Design by Michelle Habeck, Original Music and Sound by Ryan Rummery, and Video and Projection Design by Alex Koch. Stage management: Laura Smith, assisted by Captain Kate Murphy and Caitlin Powers. Dramaturg: Kellie Mecleary. Casting director: Tara Rubin. Produced by CenterStage. Reviewed by Tim Treanor.